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As Traffic Clots The Skyways, Officials Seek Ways To Cope With Drones


You probably won't hear it because it's above your head - literally - but this is becoming a common sound and sight in our skies.


VIGELAND: Drones. But then listen to these recordings from air traffic control of aircraft pilots across the country.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: You know these guys are saying it's just toys, but these drones we're flying vicinity of GWP.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: All right, what altitude were you guys at?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: These things were well over 2,000 feet.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: At what altitude would you say that was?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: I would say probably about a 100 feet below us.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Medevac cage 1, we almost got hit by a drone just to let you know up here. We didn't see it till it pretty much got right up on us.

VIGELAND: Commercial and hobbyist drones have been hailed as a futuristic next step for the use of our airspace. But the head of the Federal Aviation Administration, Michael Huerta, acknowledges they're also a fast-growing and unregulated menace to other aircraft.

MICHAEL HUERTA: June of last year, we had 16 reported sightings by pilots of unmanned aircraft operating near airports. June of this year, it was 138. And so clearly, this is increasing at a very dramatic rate.

VIGELAND: The FAA is now reviewing potential changes to where and how drones can operate. Huerta says if you plan on flying one, these are the rules.

HUERTA: For hobbyists and recreational users, they have the ability to fly as long as they're staying under 400 feet, they're not within five miles of an airport, they're not flying carelessly and recklessly, and they are not flying over large crowds of people. For commercial operators, they need a specific authorization from the FAA. And we work with the industry to issue certificates of authorizations and permits.

VIGELAND: But what about the instances where you can't identify who is operating this wayward drone? How do you hold violators accountable when drones don't have, say, what airplanes all have, which is numbers? Should drones be required to have that too?

HUERTA: We're certainly looking at that. One of the things that I've asked our industry partners to look at is are there technological solutions that would enable us to be able to tie a particular drone or unmanned aircraft with a specific operator? There's also an active debate taking place when an individual buys a drone that they have to register that they have it, and that might also provide the opportunity to ensure that we're reinforcing the message of what the rules are.

VIGELAND: I'm sure you heard about the near collision of the air ambulance in Fresno; the fire crew that was essentially grounded because of a drone. Is there any debate within your agency of whether it's even worth allowing drones at all because right now, it seems not a matter of if there will be a collision, but when?

HUERTA: The whole idea of these drones coming into conflict with other aircraft is something that I'm extremely concerned about. And we're looking at two things, first is education. There are a lot of people operating model unmanned aircraft with little or no aviation experience. They're buying them at hobby shops. They're buying them at camera stores. So the whole concept of what are the rules of the air is a very new thing to them. The other half is enforcement. And that has to go hand-in-hand with education. This can range from a warning letter, but it can go all the way up to tens of thousands of dollars for egregious violations.

VIGELAND: Are you concerned at all that these regulations are taking too long? Is the FAA behind the curve on this issue?

HUERTA: Well, the regulatory process is designed to be slow and deliberate. And so that's why we're putting such an important emphasis on education. I do believe that the majority of people who are flying these things are not setting out to do something that's unsafe. But I also recognize that there are people out there that are very focused on trying to see if they can disrupt operations. And for those people, they need to understand that we will take enforcement action. They're breaking the law. They're putting lives in danger, and that's something that has to stop.

VIGELAND: Michael Huerta is the head of the Federal Aviation Administration. Michael, thank you for speaking with us.

HUERTA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.